- Scott Burnside, NHL
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The top free-agent forwards and where they might go after the market opens July 1 (we'll look at defensemen on Wednesday and goaltenders on Thursday):
The Buffalo Sabres will do their best to keep their twin prize centers Drury and Daniel Briere; but if they have to settle for one, watch for GM Darcy Regier to focus on Drury. The man is a winner and a leader. Can he replicate his career-best 37 goals of last season somewhere else? Perhaps not, but look for the New York Rangers to be in the running for the 30-year-old (he'll be 31 in August). Rumors persist, however, that he'll end up in San Jose, which would almost certainly mean the movement of Sharks captain Patrick Marleau, perhaps to Washington or Calgary.
Burnside's top free agents
With free agency opening up on Sunday, ESPN.com's Scott Burnside previews the top players that will likely hit the market.
The slick, dynamic center has been reborn in Buffalo and has collected 153 points in 129 games over the last two seasons with the Sabres. He is a terrific playmaker and has that unique goal scorer's gift. Although his play tailed off in the playoffs, he still led the Sabres in postseason scoring. The 29-year-old will command top dollar on the open market -- in excess of $6 million over the life of a multiyear deal. If it's too rich for the Sabres, look for Philadelphia to get in the bidding. The presence of Briere's close friend, former Sabres netminder Martin Biron who is now in Philadelphia, may be a deciding factor. Adding Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell doesn't hurt, either.
The two-time Stanley Cup winner is the third of the dashing centers who could be on the market July 1. Having played within the stifling confines of New Jersey his entire career, the potential for Gomez to explode in a more free-wheeling system, say in New York or Toronto, is an attractive lure. Washington Capitals fans can only drool at the prospect of Gomez, a former rookie of the year who had just 13 goals last season after notching 33 the season before, working his magic with the two Alexanders: Ovechkin and Semin. The Maple Leafs will have enough cap room to land one of the top free agents and are looking for someone to help captain Mats Sundin shoulder the load down the middle. Also, what about Vancouver, which needs to beef up scoring and find someone to play with fading star Markus Naslund? The retooling Flyers also have cap room and a desperate need for help at center.
The rugged forward was such a big part of Edmonton's run to the Cup finals in 2006 and looked like a lock to stay an Oiler for life until contract talks were derailed at the trade deadline and he ended up being dealt to the Islanders. Smyth will be highly coveted by teams thinking they have a shot at the Cup and need veteran leadership and grit. The dilemma for GMs is Smyth will want it all: term (five years, four at the minimum), money (at least $5 million annually), plus a no-trade clause. The way Smyth plays the game, those final years figure to be tough to swallow given the potential for injury. He plays a style that would fit in well with Randy Carlyle's Ducks in Anaheim if Teemu Selanne hangs them up. Toronto could be in the hunt, too. The question is whether things got so bad in Edmonton that Smyth couldn't return.
The first question is whether Foppa wants to return to the NHL after yet another injury-plagued season. There is a strong belief he will not. But if he can resolve the nagging foot injury that has dogged him through recent campaigns and decides to return, Forsberg will likely command a much smaller price tag than the $5.75 million he made last season. Would he return to Colorado with old pal Joe Sakic? If he came cheaply, he'd be a terrific foil for rising young stars Wojtek Wolski and Paul Stastny. And what about the unfinished business in Philadelphia, where the Flyers need help at center? Forsberg didn't come close to achieving what he hoped to when he signed with Philadelphia coming out of the lockout and the Flyers have money to spend. The Thrashers need help at center, too, but Forsberg seemed to want nothing to do with Atlanta and old coach Bob Hartley. What about Buffalo, where it seems possible the Sabres will come up empty in trying to re-sign Drury, Briere, or both? Hmm. Interesting, no?
Like Smyth, Blake will be pursued by teams looking for a veteran with a fearless streak and a nose for the net. After putting up career numbers with the Islanders last season (40 goals, 69 points), the 33-year-old Blake will be looking for a big payout relative to the $1.6 million he earned last season. Something in the neighborhood of three times that will likely be the asking price. Toronto, which might not have enough oomph to attract the big boys on the market, might settle for Blake, who would be a nice fit on the wing with Sundin. Minnesota, meanwhile, is always interested in a little homegrown talent (Blake is from Moorehead).
With the Predators stuck in hockey limbo, the talented Kariya will be looking for a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup in a place where he won't have to carry the entire club. Kariya made $4.5 million last season; that's about the right amount, give or take, for a player who did not miss a regular-season game and tallied 161 points in two seasons in Nashville. If longtime pal Selanne returns for another go-round in Anaheim, Kariya might look good patrolling the wing with either the Finnish Flash or rising star Ryan Getzlaf (although Anaheim fans might be resentful of the way Kariya left the first time around). The question is whether Kariya is Carlyle's kind of guy. Depending on what happens in San Jose with Marleau et al, it's worth noting that Kariya enjoyed his greatest successes with Sharks coach Ron Wilson.
Although the big money will chase the big three (Gomez, Briere and Drury) as teams try to build down the middle, there is surprising depth in the free-agent market at the center position. Handzus, an underappreciated player in Philadelphia who was hurt early on in Chicago last season, is an intriguing possibility. Before he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee in October, Handzus clicked nicely with Martin Havlat. Although he's not regarded as a true first-line center, the defensively sound Handzus is a fine faceoff man. Sounds like a pretty good fit for a team looking for help on both sides of the puck. Watch for Handzus and good friend and fellow Slovak Ladislav Nagy to perhaps package themselves together. One team that might be interested is Columbus, where coach Ken Hitchcock is well aware of Handzus' value from their days in Philadelphia.
At one point, Lang was considered a top-10 forward in the NHL. He's lost a step in the new NHL, which hasn't been particularly kind to Lang, who dropped to third-line status in Detroit this past season. He slumped to 52 points. For a price at or below the $3.8 million he made last season, Lang could be a useful second-line pivot with power-play possibilities. Look for Atlanta to try to bolster its perennially weak center position at a bargain price. Lang, Alexei Yashin or Mike Comrie might fit the bill, at least in relation to the cap if not in on-ice performance.
The 38-year-old forward put up decent numbers in New York in his first season as a Ranger (62 points in 67 games), but he tailed off late in the season and his five-on-five production was virtually nonexistent in the latter part of the season. Some of this is due to the lack of a regular center to feed him the puck and some to the fact Shanahan's foot speed has never been his strong suit. If the Rangers decide to pass, Shanahan might be interested in a supporting role in his hometown of Toronto. He might also be interesting to new Ottawa GM Bryan Murray, especially given Gary Roberts' recent re-upping in Pittsburgh.
Here's an interesting case. Considered hockey road kill last offseason, Guerin responded with an inspired campaign after the Blues took a chance, recording 36 goals and a plus-10 on a rebuilding Blues team. St. Louis GM Larry Pleau and new president John Davidson parlayed Guerin into a first-round draft pick, a prospect and veteran forward Ville Nieminen, courtesy of the San Jose Sharks. Guerin responded by becoming a nonentity. The veteran forward, who still has better-than-average speed, came up with zero postseason goals and just two points in nine playoff games. He'll garner some attention from teams looking for secondary scoring on the wings, like New Jersey, where Guerin won a Cup in 1995, but his stock is definitely on the wane after the playoffs. There's also a possibility Guerin could return to the Blues to help complement an emerging group of young forwards.
Here's another interesting case. Nagy has all kinds of tools, but has never really found a place in which to put them to good use. He didn't have much of a supporting cast in Phoenix, which traded him to Dallas for a first-round draft pick and Mathias Tjarnqvist at the trade deadline. In Big D, Nagy was underwhelming, working under defensive-minded coach Dave Tippett, and chipped in just 14 points in 25 regular-season games and then just two more in the postseason as the Stars bowed out in seven games to Vancouver in the first round. In the right environment, Nagy figures to be a point-a-game producer. But where is that environment? Nagy will be looking at about $4 million, but that's a lot for a player who's never produced anywhere near his potential. Could Hitchcock find Nagy's inner star in Columbus? What about Handzus and Nagy in Los Angeles, where the Kings are looking to build a winner? If Washington GM George McPhee got the green light to try to build a playoff team instead of simply treading water, he could do worse than adding a Handzus/Nagy combo there.
The enigmatic Russian was recently thrown off Long Island, where the Islanders bought him out of his whopper contract. The question now is which of the 10 to 12 teams hungry for help down the middle are hungry enough to bring aboard a talented player with a boatload of baggage. His agents say he won't come as a basement-bargain signing; and in a dressing room with a strong core of leaders, having the point-a-game producer might work out. Montreal, Atlanta and Washington seem like potential good fits at the right price.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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